When it was announced that Lesley alumnus Sydney Chaffee won the 2017 National Teacher of the Year award, one person suggested she celebrate with the Patriots. Chaffee, however, had another idea — the Huntington Theatre Company, where she and her students have collaborated on plays and poems for 10 years.
“Usually I’m backstage,” Chaffee said at her awards ceremony. Not so on Friday as the ninth-grade teacher and 2016 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year took the platform along with Governor Charlie Baker, Lt. Governor Karyn Polito, as well as a former student and other education professionals.
Giving Chaffee the spotlight she usually reserves for her students, Gov. Baker likened the event to “being on the same stage as Michael Jordan.”
“We appreciate what you do every day,” he said. “For Sydney, it’s all about the kids.”
Chaffee graduated with a master’s degree from Lesley in 2007 and that same year began teaching at Codman Academy Charter Public School, where she has inspired students to embrace literature, history and the performing arts…even converting a self-described “STEM person.”
“I wasn’t good at humanities. Sydney, she kind of changed that about me,” said 10th-grader Cesar DaSilva.
“She always taught that, even if it’s not your thing, you can be involved.”
Latanya Simpson, a Codman graduate now studying at Providence College, also spoke of the influence Chaffee had on her education and life.
“Sydney is my super hero,” she said. “I often found myself in challenging situations. During these times, I never thought I was good enough. Sydney was always the first person to assure me. She said I had nothing but greatness to offer the world.”
Simpson and others praised Chaffee’s patience with students as well as her refusal to cast blame when a pupil didn’t understand a lesson.
“She developed new techniques and did her research and came back the next day with an entirely new platform to teach the same material,” Simpson remembered from her own time in Chafee’s classroom.
Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester also spoke of the award-winning teacher’s accomplishments. He noted that this year is the first time in the national award’s 65-year history that a Massachusetts teacher was selected. It is also the first time a charter school teacher received the honor.
When it was time for Chaffee to speak, she immediately turned the attention to her family, colleagues, and especially, her students. “You make me proud to be a teacher. Thank you for being brilliant, passionate and honest.”
Chaffee, who was one of four finalists, said she couldn’t quite believe she was standing in the same spot where her students would perform their annual play in a month’s time. Each year the students take a historical event they’ve learned about through Chaffee’s class and act it out at the Huntington Theatre.
“I’ve envied their pride and their accomplishments and the beauty of their performances,” she said. “This year I aspire to be as brave, as honest, as impactful as they are.”
The coming year will take Chaffee from her classroom to around 150 national and international venues where she will speak about the teaching profession and her own work.